On Display in the Exhibit Hall

A roundup of content, tech, and services

July 17, 2019

A rep with mk Solutions demonstrates the mk LibDispenser in the 2019 ALA Annual Conference Exhibit Hall. Photo: Cognotes
A rep with mk Solutions demonstrates the mk LibDispenser in the 2019 ALA Annual Conference Exhibit Hall. Photo: Cognotes

The nation’s capital was a popular venue for the American Library Association’s (ALA) 2019 Annual Conference and Exhibition June 20–25, attracting more than 21,400 attendees and exhibitors. With more than 900 vendors represented, the exhibit hall was brimming with every imaginable product and service of interest to librarians. The 6,827 registered exhibitors made up an impressive corps of knowledgeable representatives of diverse organizations that share a common interest in supporting libraries. Keeping up with even a fraction of the latest industry developments requires a substantial amount of time on the exhibit floor. Here are some of the products that caught my attention.

The ongoing allure of books

Traditional books still dominate much of the hall. Publishers and distributors pull out all the stops to win the attention of librarians, appreciated for their influence in promoting titles they recognize as quality literature. Many librarians schedule their exhibit visits around the times when their favorite authors are present to sign books and chat. The focus on books drives the need for supporting equipment, services, and technology that libraries need to manage these materials, both physical and digital.

The effort involved in managing physical books requires efficient, specialized equipment. Observing the sophisticated sorters and other materials-handling equipment in operation on the exhibit floor is fascinating. Some of the vendors demonstrating materials-handling equipment or RFID technologies include mk Solutions, P. V. Supa, Lyngsoe Systems, D-Tech International, and EnvisionWare. Each has also developed integration technologies to enable their products to work with the library’s integrated library system (ILS). Most offer complementary services for other library operations, such as supporting lending of laptops, tablets, and other equipment. Managing library materials often involves offsite storage. Iron Mountain was on hand to promote its offsite storage service as an alternative to library-managed facilities.

Towering giants

As the largest exhibition anywhere for library products, the ALA Annual Conference provides a unique opportunity to get a wider picture of the information industry. The continually rising demand for digital content results in a full spectrum of state-of-the-art user interfaces within a broad ecosystem of technologies supporting library services. Digital content requires sustainable cost and business models, as well as privacy protections consistent with library policies and values.

As always, the lofty booths of the industry giants draw attention to organizations making substantial investments in the conference, often with small armies of personnel at the ready. The mix of supersized exhibition spaces among the more modest booths and tables mirrors the library industry itself. The many organizations with specialized and boutique products and services fill in competitive gaps among the consolidated corporations with ever-expanding portfolios. Longtime conference attendees can’t help but notice that the wares of many small or midsized vendors have found their way into the big-name islands.

The Baker & Taylor cat mascots tour the exhibit floor. Photo: Cognotes
The Baker & Taylor cat mascots tour the exhibit floor. Photo: Cognotes

Our tour of the big names begins with Follett, a massive company with an interesting array of content and technology offerings. With its Destiny automation system tailored for PreK–12 school libraries well established, Follett has amassed a large body of digital content, delivered through its Titlewave platform, as well as used textbooks and other classroom materials. Baker & Taylor, a mainstay of the exhibit hall with its famous cat mascots, became part of Follett in 2016. Its role as one of the main distributors of books to libraries resonates with the librarians. This year the messaging at the booth emphasized the synergies of Follett and Baker & Taylor as “better together.”

The EBSCO Information Services island highlighted its core products: the EBSCOhost databases, EBSCO Discovery Service, the GOBI acquisitions tool, and NoveList. EBSCO Faculty Select, a relatively new offering, assists teachers and faculty to explore open educational resources and DRM-free ebooks in support of courses. EBSCO seemed especially enthused to promote its FOLIO Library Services, an open source platform now on the cusp of implementation. FOLIO came about through a broad community of companies and libraries, with EBSCO providing extensive financial backing and leadership. EBSCO also engages in philanthropy and announced the recipients of its most recent Solar Grants: Hedgesville (W.Va.) Public Library, New Port Richey (Fla.) Public Library, and Medicine Hat (Alberta) College were awarded $100,000 each to pay for the installation of a solar power system to reduce electrical costs.

At the ProQuest booth, content and technology were both given prominence. The new ProQuest One Academic resource provides a unified interface to a diverse assortment of multidisciplinary content offerings. The company showed off an improved interface to its Alexander Street video collections, acquired in 2016. Recently added capabilities include new virtual reality technology with 360-degree viewing for selected video content.

ProQuest’s Ex Libris products were well represented. With the Alma library services platform as its flagship offering, Ex Libris’s reps were especially interested in discussing the Leganto course resource list application and the new Esploro research services platform—still in development but with early implementations expected soon.

The 2019 conference was unusually quiet on the mergers and acquisitions front, with two recent announcements relating to ProQuest. Though somewhat downplayed as far as its impact on the company, independent investment firm Atairos has acquired minority ownership of ProQuest. Ex Libris’s acquisition of the RapidILL service from Colorado State University Libraries was a livelier topic of conversation. This move accelerates the company’s initiatives related to resource sharing and interlibrary loan, an area of critical interest to its academic library customers.

Gale, a division of Cengage Learning, demonstrated its broad portfolio of content products and technologies for libraries. The company has concentrated on making major enhancements to its patron-facing interfaces, incorporating more elegant features and design characteristics. At this year’s conference, the company previewed its soon-to-be-released In Context suite of resources that will assist educators in discovering content appropriate for educational activities aligned with applicable state or national curriculum standards. Gale has also launched a new digital collection on public health, its first installment titled Public Health in Modern America, 1890–1970. The company downplayed a proposed merger between its parent company Cengage and McGraw-Hill Education publishers, but more details will likely be available in 2020 once the deal has been completed. Industry observers anticipate that the Gale brand will remain intact and that its library-facing products will draw from a much broader collection of content from the combined organization.

OCLC’s booth was replete with the broad range of products and services offered by the nonprofit organization. Although ample literature and expertise were available about its core services for cataloging and interlibrary loan, Wise, a new patron-centered ILS for public libraries, seemed to be more conspicuous, as was the WorldShare Management Services cloud-based platform.

Purveyors of digital content

Libraries continue to make ever-growing investments in digital content. Public libraries maintain a delicate balance between physical and digital content, with the scales continually tipping more toward digital, especially in ebooks and audiobooks, with expanding opportunities for streaming audio and video.

OverDrive plays an oversized role the public library ebook and audiobook space, serving an impressive 44,000 libraries in 70 countries. The company launched Sora, a new reading app designed for K–12 schools, that joins Libby, its main app for digital content launched at the 2017 ALA Annual Conference. OverDrive released a curated collection of titles from the Indie Author Project, featuring ebooks from self-published authors.

Bibliotheca’s towering booth illustrates the reality of the demand libraries face for physical and digital information. This global giant demonstrated its expansive array of self-service circulation kiosks, sorters, and security gates, as well as its cloudLibrary app for digital lending. The company has found synergies and integrated technologies between its products to meet the demand for seamless interfaces and workflows that span physical and digital formats.

Madridbased ODILO demonstrated its platform for the discovery, management, and distribution of ebooks and other digital content. Its presence in this market continues to expand, serving a customer base of 4,500 institutions with titles from more than 5,000 publishers.

Hoopla showcased its diverse catalog of streaming digital content for public libraries, including movies, TV programs, audiobooks, and ebooks. Its cost-per-view business model avoids patron queues for access, with capped amounts to protect library budgets. The service is a subsidiary of Midwest Tape, a longstanding provider of content on physical media for libraries.

Kanopy’s booth featured its growing catalog of classic and independent cinema titles and documentaries, delivered through its streaming platform. Its patron-driven acquisition business model, combined with keen interest by patrons and students, has strained the budgets of many of its library customers.

Other exhibitors supplying streaming and other digital content included Infobase Publishing, which offers aggregated online databases, ebook collections, and streaming video for schools and libraries. Library Ideas highlighted its popular Freegal Music and Freading ebook service as well as GoChip Beam, a portable and lendable hotspot enabling access to movies and TV programs in settings without an internet connection.

The floor was abuzz with grumblings over pricing models. The popularity of digital content, unprotected by the first-sale doctrine, combined with rising popularity and less-than-ideal terms from publishers, has raised alarms. Just prior to the conference, Hachette Book Group changed its terms for library ebook lending by limiting access to two years instead of the previous arrangement for perpetual ownership. Simon & Schuster followed suit in early July. Though the cost per title is lower and embargoes have been eliminated, libraries will need to reselect and reinvest, resulting in greater efforts in collection development and higher costs over time, especially for titles retaining interest beyond two years. ALA itself expressed concern about this change in a June 17 press release. Demand-driven acquisitions and pay-per-use pricing likewise come with budget challenges.

Patron engagement

Companies developing products and services for libraries strive to emulate the sophistication and ease of use of tech giants like Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Twitter. Rich user experience and patron engagement have become essential if libraries are to be well regarded by their patrons. The conference displayed a host of products that aim to help libraries strengthen their engagement with their communities.

BiblioCommons’s BiblioCore discovery service embraced features used by social networks to increase patron participation and guide them to their next library reads. The company commissioned a new study by an independent consultant that suggests that public libraries that use their products see more visits than comparable libraries that do not use BiblioCommons services. As the next step in building patron engagement, the company just launched BiblioEmail, which uses email campaigns or newsletter templates for targeted messaging to patrons based on their interests, location, and age.

ChiliFresh targets similar goals, with dynamic content and services layered into a library’s existing catalog or discovery service. ChiliPAC, now live at Brooklyn (N.Y.) Public Library, adds cover art, personalized summaries, and reviews to the library’s online catalog to enrich patron engagement. Reading lists created by librarians or patrons can be shared locally or throughout the community that uses the platform.

Capira Technologies showed off its products aimed at modernizing the patron experience, including mobile apps and location-based services using iBeacon to enable interactive communication with patrons within the library. The company also provides apps for digital library cards, self-service lending and renewal, and issuing passes to local museums.

Springshare's booth. Photo: Cognotes
Springshare’s booth. Photo: Cognotes

Springshare continues to expand its portfolio of products for both library staff and patrons. Its LibGuides platform has moved well beyond a convenient way for librarians to build resource pages on key topics to serve as a library-specific content management system (CMS) that can replace the library website. Recent additions include tools for analytics and customer relationship management. Its LibAnswers service, which supports remote reference and other customer interactions, gained a major feature through the acquisition of OCLC’s QuestionPoint virtual service.

Complicated website frameworks such as Drupal have sparked a genre of library-specific CMS options. Examples seen in the exhibits include Mugo Web, based on the eZ Publish CMS, Springshare’s LibGuides CMS, Stacks (now part of EBSCO Information Services), and BiblioCommons BiblioWeb.

Voice controls

This year’s exhibits included a variety of voice-activated devices similar to those now commonplace in the consumer market. ConverSight.ai demonstrated its Libro platform for enabling voice control for such library services as online catalogs. Libro uses artificial intelligence and other technologies that use natural language to allow users to perform specific tasks. This appeals to those who use voice commands on their home devices and is especially helpful for patrons with disabilities. The Libro technology operates independently of such virtual assistants as Amazon Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Google Assistant.

Another set of products links library services with these consumer interfaces. Hoopla has enabled its service on Amazon Alexa devices. Pellucent Technologies lets libraries implement the Alexa Skills Kit and Actions on Google to allow patrons to use smart speakers to make requests addressed to their library’s catalog. Communico demonstrated its impressive suite of applications that work together to provide a modern environment for patrons and staffers, integrated with the library’s ILS and content services. Its booth this year demonstrated the suite’s ability to use Alexa as a voice interface to enable patrons to ask about library events and hours, search the catalog, or request details about their account.

A kiosk at the conference’s main entrance provided an Amazon Alexa device for visitors to ask for directions, restaurant recommendations, and other information. Though not related to any of the library vendors exhibiting at the conference, the kiosk reflected the prevalence of these devices and sparked conversations among librarians about privacy implications. These products raise concerns about the intermingling of data between library services and commercial advertising networks. First-time exhibitor LDH Consulting Services specializes in issues relating to the protection of patron data.

The ILS arena

The usual cadre of organizations involved in ILS products were on hand, featuring the latest revisions to their core products and supplemental products or interfaces. SirsiDynix showed off the latest improvements to its BLUEcloud suite of products, and its reps were keen to talk about the success of its virtual events for librarians, such as the Connections Summit: Directors Edition. Innovative Interfaces came to the annual conference under new leadership, energized to demonstrate its new Inspire Discovery service and give previews of upcoming components of its next generation Inspire platform.

The Library Corporation, offering the CARL•X and Library•Solution ILS products, exhibited jointly with its subsidiary Tech Logic, provider of automated materials-handling equipment. Auto-Graphics, offering SHAREit as a web-based interlibrary loan platform and the VERSO ILS, showed its latest product versions based on cloud technologies. PTFS and its subsidiary LibLime showed off the latest version of its Bibliovation platform for managing print and digital resources. Other ILS vendors present included Book Systems, Insignia Software, and Media Flex with its OPALS product for schools and other small libraries.

The open source scene

Open source technologies were well represented. ByWater Solutions emphasized its support services for the Koha ILS and the CORAL electronic resource management system, as well as planned services for FOLIO. The Equinox Open Library Initiative, now a nonprofit organization, provides services for both the Evergreen and Koha ILS products. Equinox recently launched a new open source software grant program where eligible libraries can receive hosting and support services for Koha. TIND featured its services for its open source ILS and repository platform and its recent placement in the Columbia Law School Library. Index Data has been heavily involved in the development of FOLIO, for which it will also provide hosting and support services. The company has also been engaged in the Project ReShare initiative to develop an open source resource sharing platform. LYRASIS, a nonprofit membership organization, is involved with a variety of open source projects, including DSpace, Fedora, ArchivesSpace, CollectionSpace, and SimplyE.

Training and learning

Another set of vendors provide content and platforms for specialized learning scenarios. Lynda.com, a familiar brand for libraries, has now become LinkedIn Learning. The platform provides courses and content across many different areas in business, technology, and creative fields and has been adopted by many libraries to provide training for patrons. Brainfuse provides online tutoring, homework help, and test preparation through its online classroom. It also includes tools and resources to help with writing interview preparation, job coaching, and résumé writing. Tutor.com offers an educational platform for online tutoring, homework help, test preparation, and other ongoing educational needs. Google exhibited at the conference again this year, featuring its Grow with Google community program to provide training and tools to help individuals learn new skills to advance in the workplace. This program includes workshops, in-person training, and individualized coaching through local events offered throughout the country.

This summary can give only cursory coverage of the vast expanse of organizations, products, and services represented in the ALA Annual Conference exhibit hall. Apologies to the many worthy vendors with interesting and impressive products not mentioned. The exhibits complement the programs and meetings, and vice versa. Hopefully the issues, topics, and conversations that take place in the meeting rooms and hallways of the conference will make their way into the development stream of the products that will populate the exhibits in future years. The ongoing collaboration of vendors and librarians will be essential to ensure each new round of product development addresses our strategic needs and core values.

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